Head Shrinking
By Mike Collis

Throughout the world there are many head hunting indigenous tribes, but only a few that actually shrink human heads, a practice called “tsantsa”. Although the Indians of the Phillipines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea did shrink human heads the most prominent head shrinkers were the Jivaro people who lived in the Peruvian Amazon.

The Jivaro Indians have always been known for their fierceness. In 1599 the Jivaro rose up and killed 25,000 foreigners in a place called Logrono. The uprising was caused because the colonists increased taxes on gold which was being mined in that area. During the massacre they captured the local governor and poured molten gold down his throat which caused his bowels to explode. Everyone was killed except for a few young white women who were hauled away to be slaves. After this no one conquered the Jivaro or tried to take their lands despite the large deposits of gold known to lie there. The reputation of the Jivaro as fierce fighters coupled with the practice of shrinking the heads of their slain enemies kept many intruders out of the area for years.

How to shrink a human head

First you need to find a human head. Ideally the head must have belonged to an enemy that you have recently killed. You cut off the head of your enemy, even if he is still alive, the fresher the better. When decapitating your enemy be sure to leave some of the skin from the chest and back attached, this will be useful later. When you have the head in your hands, carefully with a sharp knife cut a slit from the neck up to the top of the back of the head. Then carefully peal back the skin from the skull and pull the skull out including the brain, the eyes, the nasal system, the tongue, tonsils and the throat and discard it unceremoniously into the nearest river as a gift for Pani the anaconda. Now with a fine thread carefully sow up the eye sockets. The lips are then firmly closed and clamped together with tiny wooden pegs like cocktail sticks. These sticks are usually taken out later and replaced with dangling cords. The next part of the process is to put the head in a cooking pot and bring it to the boil. Then simmer it for about 1 and a half to two hours on a low flame. Cooking the head for longer will cause the hair to fall out. When you remove the head from the cooking pot it will have shrunk to about one third of its original size, have the texture of rubber and the skin will have become darker. The scalp and skin are now turned inside out and any flesh still attached to the scalp is scraped off with a knife. The skin is then turned right side out and the slit in the rear is sewn up. What now remains looks similar to a rubber glove. Now more shrinking is required. This is done with hot stones being dropped into the head through the open neck cavity. The heat from the stones causes the skin to contract and shrink. While the hot stones are inside the head they must be constantly moved around to stop the hot stones from burning the skin. Eventually the skin will shrink and it will be too small to put any more stones inside. From now on only hot sand is put in the skin. The sand also reaches the eye, nose and ear cavities which the stones could not reach. This process is repeated many times. When the head has shrunk sufficiently hot stones are applied to the face to shape it. A shrunken head must always maintain the likeness of its previous owner. To finish off, surplus hair is singed off and the head is hung over a fire to blacken and harden. After this the head is rubbed down with charcoal ash because it is believed that this will prevent the previous owners soul from escaping. Then a hot knife is drawn over the lips to dry them off. A hole is now made in the top of the head through which a vine is threaded so that the head can be displayed in the home or can be hung around the owners neck. Finally the surplus skin from the chest and back are put into the neck cavity to finish it off. The entire process takes about 7 days.

For nearly 2 centuries shrunken heads have been coveted by collectors and tourists alike. So much so the demand caused an increase in killings in order to satisfy the market. The term headhunting is said to have come from this practice. Normally one shrunken head was exchanged for one rifle, but quite often they would change hands for as little as $25US. Soon afterwards the Peruvian and Ecuadorian governments made it a crime to sell shrunken heads.
Most shrunken heads seen for sale nowadays are fake...
...or so they say.

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